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On the Power of Observation

On a crisp clear day this autumn, I sat down with John O’Brien to discuss an iconic carte de visite of Gen. Robert E. Lee.

My laptop and scanner seemed out of place on the antique wood table in his antebellum home. John, an affable retired historian and journalist, generously shared his knowledge and experience, as we chatted about the historical importance of the well-known view of Lee and Traveller. Among John’s keen observations was that the debris on the street beneath horse and rider was not debris at all, but fall leaves. Also, the apparent broken windowpanes in the background building were not broken. The glass simply reflected a tree or building on the other side of the street, opposite the view of the lens.

Carte de visite by White & Kelly of Lexington, Va. John O’Brien collection.
Carte de visite by White & Kelly of Lexington, Va. John O’Brien collection.

This, and other observations, including the hand-cancelled revenue stamps on the back of this photo and others like it, led John to conclude that the photograph was taken after the war in Lexington, Va. According to tradition, the image was made in Petersburg, Va., during the closing months of the war.

John’s example illustrates how the power of observation can have an impact on historical accuracy. It also underscores the importance of setting the record straight. For decades, students of the Civil War who glimpsed this image and read the caption no doubt came away with a lasting impression of a proud, defiant Lee among the war-torn ruins of his beloved Virginia, as he prepared to face surrender, ultimately at Appomattox. Now, thanks to John’s work, a new caption can be written that will leave a very different impression. Lee, the defeated warrior, bravely rides into the next chapter of the American story—not at the head of a rebel army, but rather as the president of an institution of higher education in a reunited and still recovering country.

History is improved by keen observation and scholarship. Take a close look at all the images published in this and other issues of MI. You just might change history.

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